Managing Partner & Energy Specialist – Jason Crowell – S2E25

This week on the Legally Speaking Podcast, our host Rob Hanna was joined by Jason Crowell. Jason amongst many things is a multi-award-winning lawyer currently operating as the Managing Partner of his own law firm Peace Crowell.

Peace Crowell is a boutique firm specialising in advising developers, contractors, utilities, and government entities on complex projects in the United States and internationally. The firm under Jason’s stewardship has represented clients in some of the largest project development and financing transactions in history, and they regularly work with and opposite the largest international advisory and consulting firms in the business.

Jason talks about his journey into the law, experiences of working for law firms in different parts of the world, the challenges of setting up his own law firm and his passion for pro bono work!

Key episode topics include:

  • The role of an energy lawyer
  • What goes into setting up your own law firm
  • The benefits of nuclear energy
  • Top tips for aspiring and junior lawyers
  • Jason’s advisory work on energy & vaccines 


[0:00:00.1] Rob Hanna: Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast powered by Kissoon Carr. I’m your host, Rob Hanna. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by the highly impressive Jason Crowell. Jason, amongst many things as a multi-award-winning lawyer, currently operating as the managing partner of his own law firm, Peace Crowell. Peace Crowell is a boutique firm specializing in advising developers, contractors, utilities, and government entities on complex projects in the US and internationally. The firm under Jason stewardship has represented clients and some of the largest project development and financing transactions in history, and they regularly work with the opposite sides of the largest international advisory and consulting firms in the business. So, a very big welcome, Jason.

[0:00:45.6] Jason Crowell: Thanks, Robert. Great to be with you.

[0:00:47.9] Rob Hanna: Yeah. Good to have you on the show. And before we go through your amazing career and successes to date, we must start with our customary opening icebreaker question on the podcast, which is on the scale of one to 10, 10 being very real. How real would you rate the TV series Suits in terms of its reality?

[0:01:10.0] Jason Crowell: Six.

[0:01:12.8] Rob Hanna: Straight to the point, straight up six. You know what, that’s more than what some people have. They normally give it anywhere ranging from like a two to a five. So, six is a fair result, but look, let’s take it back to the beginning. Tell us a bit about your sort of family background and your upbringing.

[0:01:28.5] Jason Crowell: Grew up in Southern California, married very young, not really sure what I was going to go do, but academics always came quite easy for me. I think I wandered into the career development office at the undergrad school I was at, looking for a way to very quickly get to a position of supporting any wife in a family. And came to the conclusion, I go take the LSAT and see what happens and that sort of clicked and off I went to law school is on the east coast and Connecticut and that was it.

[0:02:04.1] Rob Hanna: Good stuff. Did you always want to go into the legal sector?

[0:02:07.4] Jason Crowell: No, not at all. It was very happenstance last minute. I was a math major in fact, as an undergrad, which is a rarity amongst lawyers, I think.

[0:02:17.4] Rob Hanna: Yeah. I think that’s very true, but look you’ve worked sort of, you know, all over the globe in some respect. So, from your experience, what do you think have been some of the differences you’ve found working as a lawyer in the US versus in the UK?

[0:02:32.6] Jason Crowell: That is an interesting question. I think at the level of practice that, that I’m engaged in any way which is a lot of commercial transactional and in particular finance work, I find that, at least historically, I think it is potentially changing. Prep is changing, probably is changing and has been for a while but I think the legacy of the kind of elite practices on both sides of the Atlantic, you get a little more sort of proactive lawyers playing the, you know, the commercial business side of things out of the US. I think kind of coming, you know, getting more involved with English practice, not only here in the UK, but also in other jurisdictions around the world.

Historically, I have found a slightly more somehow scripted approach to the English practice, but I think that as there’s been a lot of in recent years in particular, movement across firms and consolidation of practices and whatnot, I think that’s converging quite a bit. I don’t know that there’s so much distinction as there once was.

[0:03:39.7] Rob Hanna: Yeah, no, fair comment and, you know, just leading on to your current practice then, and the types of clients you work with, do you want to tell us a bit more about that?

[0:03:49.6] Jason Crowell: Yeah, well, it’s principally energy and infrastructure. There are some other things that get smattered in there as well from time to time. And in particular, I do actually have quite a bit of experience in hotel casino and resort development as well, which that’s a whole different story, but it’s all kind of large project development. I did cut my teeth in for a lot of years at the big firm. I represented lenders and then gravitated over time towards the developer side of the practice, which is where I find myself now.

[0:04:24.2] Rob Hanna: Yeah. And, you know, you’ve got a highly, highly impressive CV, you know, from, like you say, from an academic and you’ve also worked with lots of Latham & Watkins and then you set up your own firm Peace Crowell, you know, why did you decide to set up Peace Crowell and tell us more about the firm?

[0:04:40.4] Jason Crowell: It has many things along the journey it is a bit of an experiment, which for whatever reason, maybe I’ve been more prone to do those sorts of things. But this, this one was particularly complicated as a psychological and emotional moment for me, because I came out of Yale law school and then immediately joined Latham in the San Diego office. And there was a person in particular there that I went to work with. And even that wasn’t a very last-minute decision. I was sort of all, all signed up and ready to go and start a competitor firm in New York city where I had spent both of my prior summers getting exposed to different practices. And there were some family considerations that drew me out West.

I’ve never been a particularly huge fan of personally living in Los Angeles area. So, I kind of didn’t think it would work, but I happened on somebody that was an initial mentor to me, out in San Diego had a great New York centric practice and so started there. And when I got going, I kind of consider myself a laced in life and really loved the firm. I think it’s a great place, I enjoyed working with the people that I worked with and remained friendly with them even today. So why I leave, it’s an interesting question because I think in some personal processes and after going on 10 years there,I had an opportunity to go do something that was very different. And whereas I had done predominantly US domestic work to that point. This was something big. It was international at the time. It was kind of the biggest the biggest project financing or advertised biggest project financing in history.

And when the opportunity presented itself, it was evident that that was not going to work in the configuration with me in San Diego at Latham. And I had been toying with the idea of maybe setting up a practice, never thinking I would execute those plans, but it was always, well, it wasn’t always, for a couple of years, it had been kind of a thought that had run through my mind. And when this came up, I don’t know, things just aligned. And it was it was a decision I took and here I am today.

[0:07.06.8] Rob Hanna: Yeah. Good, good stuff. And so, you know, it’s highly impressive what you have done and what you’ve done with your own firm. Would you encourage others to set up their own law firms? And if so, what sort of advice would you give to them?

[0:07:18.0] Jason Crowell: So, I can only speak to my experience and what I would say about that is that at least in the space that I’m practicing in, it is incredibly difficult, far more stressful than I ever could have imagined in initially getting going. I’m at that point now where I wouldn’t do anything different and very happy with the way things have settled. And as I said, I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it is sure that I did not really understand what was involved in getting going. And in fact, I did it twice because there was initially setting up in the US and then I thought having done it once before, it would be relatively easy to roll that model out and set up again here in London, as we did some four or five years ago, I guess. But once again, I completely underestimated what was involved. All I would say to that, and I can’t speak to other practice types, but in this space, it is very difficult to get going.

[0:08:24.9] Rob Hanna: Yeah, no, and I think, you know, honesty is also quite refreshing for people to hear, but I think once you do get going and we’ll certainly talk more very soon about how far and well you’ve done with the firm in particular, but just, you know, we can’t avoid it. We are living in going, working in a pandemic at the moment. How have you been affected? If at all, in terms of your legal practice, because of COVID-19.

[0:08:47.2] Jason Crowell: We’ve been quite busy, but I think the nature of the work has certainly been different. I forget who it was, but a couple of days ago I was reading that somebody at the, at the federal reserve, I think it was chairman Powell, but it was somebody who was saying we’re in a once in a hundred-year event. And maybe even that’s not right but if anybody says they know where this is going yeah, they’re crazy. This is just, there’s no model to predict this and that certainly seems to be kind of the sense the sense that we have people, the people we work with are largely still working, working remotely, still engaged with clients and it’s still very much a desire to kind of get on with the energy transition and projects but with uncertainty comes a bit of pause.

[0:09:37.8] Rob Hanna: Yeah, no, absolutely. And, you know, let’s reflect on a lot of your successes and let’s tell some of our listeners about them, because you have been recognized and won a number of awards distinctions, so which ones are you most proud of and why?

[0:09:54.1] Jason Crowell: Well, I would say more amused than anything else it’s been a wild ride, but a couple of years ago, we ranked 13th in the global league tables, just behind Sullivan and Cromwell. And that was interesting while it lasted. And yeah, who knows maybe at some point we’ll do it again if the right deals align, but I would venture to guess there’s maybe never been an instance when a team this small has kind of done something like that. It’s been the big deal work and that’s something quite frankly, I didn’t expect when I started, I knew we had kind of one big thing. And what I had expected was a lot of smaller things and a lot of very US centric work to follow me based on relationships that I had developed while at the big firm.

And in fact, very little of that materialized, in fact, I can’t think of a single matter that has carried over from any of those relationships that we’ve done since I set up the firm. And it was so all consuming very quickly on the big project. Initially, by the time I knew it, that was the space that I was traveling in. And all of a sudden I was better recognized by the project finance practitioners in London, and then back home. And that led to a series of unforeseen additional circumstances. And we ended up doing kind of bigger deals based on initially based on the personal relationships that had come out of the first one. And I didn’t anticipate any of that, but it’s been, what are we now? I think we’re in 10 years of practice, I think we have roughly a half dozen deal of the year awards and I’ve spent the better part of the last decade. I think virtually, you know, 80 plus percent of my time is working on transactions that are, you know, multiple billions of US dollars, if not tens of billions. And so the smaller stuff that had been my staple early on is a much smaller portion now that practice, I think that all has just been incredibly surprising.

[0:12.05.7] Rob Hanna: Yeah and, a testament to you and the team. I think it’s fair to say you you’ve significantly punched above your weight and done ever so well to get to where you have done today. And I think you’re sort of highly, highly regarded in the market. So, you know, congratulations to you and all the team and you don’t sit still you know, you do sit on a number of boards and committees as well. Do you want to sort of tell us a bit more about some of those as well, some of your advisory work?

[0:12:30.0] Jason Crowell: Oh, well, yeah, a little bit true to form it’s all over the place. And I probably, you know, put myself in a category of people and there are a number of us that respond to external stimulus by needing to go do something. So gotten to know some very interesting people that are involved in some of the vaccine development work happening in response to the pandemic. And that arose, you know, just as being a curious human being and feeling in a moment of crisis, like I need to do something and I sort of put myself in that group. I think they’re probably different responses. Different people are kind of wired differently to encounter in response to crisis but for me, it’s the need to do something. And this has been a particularly difficult scenario at a personal level setting business considerations, aside from the perspective that for many of us there hasn’t really been much to do other than not doing anything.

So that’s been really hard, but I did, I did ultimately happen on some folks are involved in vaccine development and just by being curious and offering to help that’s led to a lot of these things going way back. I mean, one of the things that we do particularly well is nuclear power and nuclear power development, new projects, and both in the conventional large scale space. And then also in the kind of newer, small modular and the advanced reactor space more we’re getting increasingly involved. And when I think back to that, and you mentioned other activities. I mean, that came about through an initiative to try to get involved in non-profits and actually to set up a non-profit, which ironically never got off the ground because it got too mired in the US, there’s a slight complication in non-profit law where activities that they go too far in the direction of lobbying are excluded from consideration is a charitable or non-profit entities. And so we were skirting up on that issue. We were involved in some significant governmentconversations, but that became quite kind of an interesting thing and that all arose during the credit crisis. And it’s just been that way as things change and the environment changes. And at that point, and this was still back at the big firm the world slowed down for a minute. And for me, the way to push through all that is to stay curious and inquire and connect with people and make new relationships. I’ve always been amazed at how receptive business and even government leaders are to that curiosity and that intellectual capacity to bring new thought or creativity to problem sets and I think being passionate and interested has opened a lot of doors.

[0:15:41.1] Rob Hanna: Yeah, no, absolutely. And it’s clear that you love to give back. I think you’ve touched on some of it there, but just to sort of flesh that out a little bit, because as you were talking about sort of non-profits, I know a while back, but you’re referring to you you’re thinking of maybe re-launching, you know, a non-profit platform. I think you said there’s potential plans. You know, it’s a platform designed to discuss all the sort of factual aspects of nuclear, the good, the bad, the ugly, and you know, the role in that for energy transformation. So do you want to talk a bit more about that?

[0:16:12.8] Jason Crowell: Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s an area that I am passionate about, and I’ll be a little bit careful on how I say this, but, you know, having cut my teeth in a very lender and investor-oriented role at a big firm in the US at a time when the renewable wave and wind was kind of emerging from a obscure novelty into all the rage. And I was just processing, you know, deal after deal as many of us do as associates until at one point, it kind of all clicked. And, I stepped back for a moment and well, I guess I’ll just say, I thought to myself, you know, this kind of doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because the, the way that I found the government to be subsidizing those projects seems so inefficient and so disingenuous to be perfectly frank.

And, as I thought more about it, and this is just the whole I mean, so much of the US renewable industry was built on monetizing tax credits and in a super high level nutshell for those that aren’t familiar with, it’s basically giving massive tax credits to IPPs and developers that simply don’t have the income to use the tax credits at all. And so instead of using them, they sell them on wall street and so they’re sort of fungible units that through that mean, this is where it gets interesting, you have to structure your way around it in pretty complex ways. But fundamentally what you’re doing is just selling those on at a discount. And as I thought to myself, you know, it, doesn’t, doesn’t really seem to be a particularly intelligent way to do this, what’s this all about.

And then I sort of thought about the politics of it for a moment. And I said to myself, well, yeah, I guess it is probably politically much more expedient to talk about a tax break for green development, as opposed to giving out grants to an energy, a type of energy technology that is otherwise non-competitive, I kind of get that, but at the same time adopt from the treasury perspective, forgone revenue is really no different than a dollar of expenditure. So, you know, aren’t we being somehow dishonest and disingenuous just for political expedience, and that didn’t seem quite right. And so that prompted, again, this intellectual curiosity, and started looking into it and picked up on this really academics that were talking about the fact that even with all the renewable development, you know, we’re just not going to get there and I happened to be very pro energy. And I also am a believer in the reality of climate change and carbon pollution, the need to do something about it. Now back then, I think if anybody told you you’d have a completely renewable grid, I think anybody would have probably said that it was fanciful and crazy today obviously in certain places that seems very achievable, but even still, even if you were to solve all of the electricity generation needs with renewables and storage, you still have massive heat requirement, process heat for industrial application, that today is a bigger contributor to carbon emissions than the electricity generation so wind turbines don’t produce heat. So, at least not at the levels that are needed for industrial applications. So it remains a kind of a critical problem. And I got into nuclear because I believed what scientists at that point were telling me long conversation, but I did get plugged in with a lot of scientists in the US predominantly some academics at the department of energy laboratories.

And once again, just wonderful people, very welcoming of a much younger version of myself back then, but enthusiastic kind of intelligent, committed intrigue and into the whole thing. And so, that prompted this journey and you know, I will say that having now worked in this space for over decade now and having been heavily involved in some of the leading projects around the world it was a bit disheartening for me being a big believer in the science to be confronted with the political and economic realities that the large scale reactors are just near impossible to get done. And of course, we see what’s happened here in the UK with the faltering of some of the projects that had been slated to move ahead previously, and it just requires so much government support, but I am once again, very enthusiastic about the evolutionary technology and the direction that science has taking this industry and the gen four advanced reactors, advanced fuels, the kind of stuff that Bill Gates working on through TerraPower.

And similarly here in the UK, Multex has this similar molten, molten salt technology. And that seems to be the way of the future, if we can ever, ever get commercially deployed, this stuff is safer, it’s cheaper, it’s competitive with gas. If you believe some of the numbers that was talking to some of the developers that are involved in this, you can have effectively the same power plant, right at 30 megawatts and scale up to 300, just by changing the pump speed on the pumps. And so, load following and all the other issues that you think about in running a grid becomes very achievable. They’re smaller, they just fit better and cheaper and modular. So, a lot of this stuff is factory built, and if we can get the licensing right and if we can move that within the industry, out of the space of being a very futuristic kind of science experiment and to actual commercial deployment, it’s amazing how much good this can do I think for the planet, for the environment, for all the challenges that we face.

[0:22:56.5] Rob Hanna: Yeah, no, absolutely. I’m really well put. So, you know, I think we wish you all the best of luck with kind of making that and kind of connecting all the dots. It’s not very straightforward as it was seen, but I think it’s a wonderful initiative. So from all of us, we kind of look forward to watching your journey with that. And I guess just as we look to sort of conclude Jason, what sort of tips would you offer to your younger self, or we have a lot of more junior listeners that listen in as well. Is there anything that you would sort of offer from your legal experience and background that you would share with others?

[0:23:29.3] Jason Crowell: Not for my legal experience or background, but at a, at a personal level and at a business level? Yeah, I absolutely would. And I think, it’s a couple things I think it’s just this thematic point of being intellectually curious and keep moving and the world is so dynamic. I mean, if you think about, you think about the situation we’re in today, and I know a lot of people I’ll digress a moment as I so frequently do, but you think about, you know, so people say, well, after the Spanish flu came the roaring twenties and after the great depression came, the industrial revolution and all that’s very true, but we’re in such a unique, which by the way is an important point in and of itself in the sense that nothing’s ever really as dire as it seems.

And it’s important to remain positive and just keep pushing ahead. You never know what’s around the corner, but it’s also so dynamic and so changing, and even as radical as their shifts were from negative to positive and things change in a moment. It’s so different today because of how interconnected we are and I got to thinking about this the other day, and yeah, all those examples are completely relevant, but we’ve never had the ability to all see what’s happening everywhere in the world at the same time and respond in unison with the same response.

And I don’t think any of us really know what, you know, what the results of this whole experiment in global lockdown is going to look like in the long-term. But I do think that there’s a lot of room for optimism you’re starting to see global leaders talk about new deal era economics. And I think even Joe Biden was on the cover of Newsweek, the new issue out with express references to FDR. And you hear about the administration here in Number 10, potentially announcing something big in July on infrastructure spending. And I mean, we, you know, you never know, we may be on the cusp of the greatest expansion economic expansion in history. So, being prepared for it being adaptable, being responsive to the environment, trying to count the costs better. That’s probably something I did not do well. And certainly, if I take myself back to the moments of challenge and getting this thing off the ground, there were some really tough times. And I wished I had maybe been more thoughtful about the downside risk, but then even understanding that to also embrace the capacity of just human ingenuity and whatever’s inside of, you know, inside of yourself, I think we are absolutely emerging into a new era where as younger generations take positions of leadership, there’s so much more open-mindedness than I’ve ever seen before men, anybody that I know, I mean, I sometimes have this conversation with my mentors who are now almost all retired, and it’s an amazing thing to see in a way the world’s become far more institutionalized and it’s very, very difficult to break into that environment, if you’re in a setting that is highly institutionalized, but at the same time, I think there’s so much more creativity and open-mindedness than we’ve ever seen before. So that spirit of entrepreneurial-ism and kind of going out and trying something different, the downside needs to be well understood. And it’s not something that I did well. But at the same time even had, I understood it, it’s not really as bad as it seems, and there’s always a brighter corner and things tend to work out, so go for it.

[0:27:26.1] Rob Hanna: And I love that there’s some real nuggets of wisdom in there, Jason, and I’m gleaming from that. And this is myself as a sort of fellow entrepreneur, you know, one thing’s for certain giving up means it’s the end. I think staying intellectually curious, having that positivity, you know, having the right people and mentors around you keep going, cause, you know, things will get better, but life isn’t a straight line, there’s always going to be challenges along the way. And I think if you can kind of find a system to embrace those challenges and always buying those solutions, I think you’ll go very fast. So that’s really, really great that you’ve kind of shed light on that. And I think as we wrap up, you know, just generally, you know, it can’t all be work. It can’t all be pro bono, it can’t all be everything that you’re doing. You know, what do you tend to try and do when you do get a down moment? What do you like to do sort of just to sort of switch off?

[0:28:06.1] Jason Crowell: So my son and I do a lot of fishing. We’ve got a very large fishing boat docked in San Diego that hasn’t been used in far too long. So maybe at some point we’ll get a chance to do that. And I collect and work on old American cars.

[0:28:23.0] Rob Hanna: Nice, nice. Well, I recently just got back a very long time ago now I should say not so recently, but Cuba and I was there and I was just fascinated with all the cars over there. So what are you what are you currently working?

[0:28:32.8] Jason Crowell: I just finished up in fact, it’s now the third time it’s been done, but 1965 Chevy Chevelle, the old postcard, not the Malibu, but I didn’t make too many of those, but that was the first car that I ever did with my father and so has a special place in my heart. And it was getting even after having been done a couple of times over, it was getting on in years so we just finished that up once again.

[0:29:04.6] Rob Hanna: Well, listen, I think we should make a unique for all the advertising our production team. I think for your episode, for the branding, we’re going to have to have a picture of you in the car, right? That’s just what it’s going to have to be. We’re going to make sure we can make that happen but Jason, on behalf of all of us on the Legally Speaking Podcast, thanks so much for your time. Thank you for coming on. I think that’s been really inspirational, really insightful. Yeah, you’re in a really interesting area of law. I think we wish your law firm, Peace Crowell, lots of continued success and all of your non-profit ventures and hoping we’ll see you again in the not so distant future.

[0:29:39.7] Jason Crowell: Very good. Thank you.

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